Operation Battle of the Pointe du Hoc

The 'Battle of the Pointe de Hoc' was fought between British-supported US forces and German forces for the Pointe du Hoc during the 'Neptune' (iii) landings which began 'Overlord' (6 June 1944).

The Pointe du Hoc is a promontory with a 110-ft (35-m) cliff overlooking the English Channel on the north-western coast of Normandy in the Calvados department in north-western France. In the middle of 1944, the Pointe du Hoc was the site of a series of German bunkers and machine gun positions. Before 'Neptune' (iii), the German army had fortified the area with concrete casemates and gun pits, but on D-Day, men of the US Army Provisional Ranger Group attacked and captured the Pointe du Hoc after landing below and then scaling the cliffs. The episode resulted from the fact that US senior commanders, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the overall Allied commander, had determined that the area accommodated a concentration of artillery which could seriously impede nearby beach attacks.

The Pointe du Hoc lies 4 miles (6.5 km) to the west of the centre of 'Omaha' Beach and, as part of the 'Atlantic Wall' fortifications its prominent cliff top location had been fortified by the Germans. The battery had been created in 1943 to house six captured French 155-mm (6.1-in) GPF guns, known to the Germans as K418(f) weapons, in open concrete gun pits. The battery was occupied by the 2nd Batterie of the 1260th Heeres-Küsten-Artillerieabteilung and, to defend the promontory, elements of Generalleutnant Dietrick Kraiss’s 352nd Division were stationed at the battery. In the spring of 1944, as they attempted to provide increased defensive capability, the Germans began to improve the battery’s defences: work on enclosed concrete casemates was started and the obsolescent 155-mm (6.1-in) guns were displaced. The German plan was to build six casemates, but two were unfinished when the location was attacked. The casemates were built over and ahead of the circular gun pits, which housed the 155-mm (6.1-in) guns. Also built was an observation bunker and mounts for 20-mm FlaK 30 anti-aircraft cannon. The 155-mm (6.1-in) guns would have threatened the Allied landings on 'Omaha' and 'Utah' Beaches when finished, possibly causing heavy casualties among the landing forces.

In the months before D-Day, Allied reconnaissance recorded the German removal of the guns one by one as they redeveloped the site with the final aim of siting four casemates facing 'Utah' Beach and the possibility of two 155-mm (6.1-in) guns in open emplacements. During the preparation for 'Neptune' (iii), it was determined by Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder that the Pointe du Hoc should be assaulted by ground forces in order to prevent the Germans from using the casemates.

Rudder knew before the landing that the casemates were unfinished and that only two of them were actually structurally close to being ready. The US 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions were given the task of assaulting the strongpoint early on D-Day. Elements of the 2nd Ranger Battalion went in to attack the Pointe du Hoc, but delays meant that the rest of the 2nd Ranger Battalion and the complete 5th Ranger Battalion landed at 'Omaha' Beach as their secondary landing position.

Although the Germans had removed the main armament from the Pointe du Hoc, the beach-heads were shelled by field artillery from the nearby Maisy battery, as shown on the fire support plan of the British heavy cruiser Hawkins. The rediscovery of the battery at Maisy has shown that it was responsible for firing on the Allied beach-heads until 9 June 1944.

The Pointe du Hoc lay within the area of responsibility of Major General Leonard T. Gerow’s V Corps of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army. This then went to Major General Clarence R. Huebner’s 1st Division and then down to the right-hand assault regiment, the 116th Infantry attached from Major General Charles H. Gerhardt’s 29th Division. In addition they were given two Ranger battalions to undertake the attack.

The Ranger battalions were commanded by Rudder, and the plan called for the three Ranger companies to be landed by sea at the foot of the cliffs, then to scale them using ropes, ladders and grapples while under German fire, and finally to engage the Germans at the top of the cliff. This was to be carried out before the main landings. The Rangers trained for the cliff assault on the Isle of Wight, under the direction of British Commandos.

Major Cleveland A. Lytle was to command Force 'A' (Companies D, E and F of the 2nd Ranger Battalion) in the assault on the Pointe du Hoc. During a briefing aboard the British infantry landing ship Ben-my-Chree, Lytle heard that French resistance sources reported the guns had been removed. Impelled to a degree by alcohol, Lytle became quite vocal that the assault would be unnecessary and suicidal and was relieved of his command at the last minute by Rudder, who felt that Lytle could not convincingly lead a force with a mission in which he did not believe.

The assault force was carried in 10 assault landing craft, with another two carrying supplies and four DUKW amphibious trucks carrying the 100-ft (30.5-m) ladders requisitioned from the London Fire Brigade. One landing craft carrying troops sank, drowning all but one of its occupants, and another was swamped. One supply craft sank and the other had to put the stores overboard to stay afloat. German fire sank one of the DUKWs, and German mortars and machine guns fired on the craft once they were with 1 mile (1.6 km) of the shore.

These initial setbacks resulted in a 40-minute delay in the landing at the base of the cliffs, but the British landing craft carrying the Rangers finally reached the base of the cliffs at 07.10 with approximately half the force. The landing craft were fitted with rocket launchers to fire grapnels and ropes up the cliffs. As the Rangers scaled the cliffs, Allied warships in the form of the US battleship Texas, the US destroyers Satterlee and Ellyson, and the British destroyer Talybont provided fire support and ensured that the German defenders on top of the point could not fire down on the assaulting troops. However, the cliffs proved to be higher than the ladders could reach.

The original plans had also called for an additional and larger Ranger force of eight companies (Companies A and B of the 2nd Ranger Battalion and the entire 5th Ranger Battalion) to follow the first attack, if successful. Flares from the cliff tops were to signal this second wave to join the attack, but because of the delayed landing, the signal came too late, and the other Rangers landed on 'Omaha' Beach instead of the Pointe du Hoc. The added impetus these 500 plus Rangers provided on the stalled 'Omaha' Beach landing has been conjectured to have averted a disastrous failure there as they carried the assault beyond the beach, into the overlooking bluffs and there outflanked the German defences.

When the Rangers made it to the top at Pointe du Hoc, they had sustained 15 casualties. The force also found that their radios were ineffective. On reaching the fortifications, most of the Rangers learned for the first time that the main objective of the assault, the artillery battery, had been removed. The Rangers regrouped at the top of the cliffs, and a small patrol went off in search of the guns. Two different patrols found five of the six guns nearby (the sixth was being fixed elsewhere) and destroyed their firing mechanisms with thermite grenades.

Many copies of the Rangers' orders were released in 2012, indicating that Rudder had been told of the guns' removal before the landing, and his D-Day orders went beyond the taking of Pointe du Hoc and remained consistent: to land at the Pointe du Hoc and on 'Omaha' Beach, to advance along the coast. to take the town of Grandcamp, to attack the Maisy batteries and to reach the 'D-Day Phase Line' close to Osmanville two hours before dark. The Rangers could then repel counterattacks along the road linking Grandcamp and Vierville via the Isigny-Bayeux road or diagonally across open fields. They could also prevent mobile 150-mm (5.91-in) artillery getting within a 12-mile (19.3-km) range of the beach-head.

The Rangers trained specifically for the 12-mile (19.3-km) inland march during their Slapton Sands exercises in England, and the US 1st Division was also given the same 'D-Day Phase Line' objective.

Once captured by the Rangers, the Pointe du Hoc did not result in any observational disadvantage for the Germans as they were already using the area’s taller château, houses and churches for this purpose.

The Small Unit Actions Report, written by US Army Intelligence, states that there were times (some hours) when the Rangers saw not a single German after the initial fighting, and historians suggest this gave Rudder the time to have continued with his objectives.

For the Rangers, the costliest part of the 'Battle of the Pointe du Hoc' followed their successful cliff assault. Determined to hold the vital high ground, yet isolated from other Allied forces, the Rangers fended off several counterattacks by the 914th Grenadierregiment. The 5th Ranger Battalion and elements of the 116th Infantry moved toward the Pointe du Hoc from 'Omaha' Beach. However, only 23 men of the 5th Ranger Battalion were able to link with the 2nd Ranger Battalion during the evening of 6 June, and during the night of 6/7 June the Germans drove the Rangers into a smaller enclave along the cliff. Some Rangers were taken prisoner.

It was not until the morning of 8 June that the Rangers at the Pointe du Hoc were finally relieved by the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions and the 1/116th Infantry, accompanied by tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion.

When the Rangers began suffering heavy losses, brief consideration was given to deploying the 84-man marine detachment aboard the battleship Texas during the morning of 7 June. At the last minute, word was passed down through the US Army chain of command that no US Marines were to be allowed to go ashore, not even for the provision of armed escorts on landing craft ferrying US Army troops or supplies.

By the end of the two-day action, the initial Ranger landing force of more than 225 men had been reduced to about 90 fighting men. After the battle, some Rangers became convinced that French civilians had taken part in the fighting on the German side. A number of French civilians accused of shooting at US forces or of serving as artillery observers for the Germans were executed.